I might be a genius.
And I don’t even have a PHD.
For years I have thought, relatively speaking, that it was much easier to give up smoking than it was to lose weight.
And now I have science to back me up.
The authors of SCARCITY:WHY HAVING TOO LITTLE MEANS SO MUCH, say the minute something we want is taken away our brain focuses on that scarcity to the exclusion of everything else.. Harvard professor Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir of Princeton say scarcity takes our brain hostage, focuses it on our obsession and reduces or “clogs up” mental capacity or what they call mental “Bandwidth.” That in turn leaves us very little mental energy for virtually anything else, like self control.
To prove this, scientists tested dieters and non-dieters and measured how well they performed on a number of different
mental tasks. The dieters, who were consumed with thoughts of food, under-performed in every area.
How thrilling to find that my ongoing compulsion to sneak forbidden cookie dough straight
from a freezer bag was completely reasonable. Because of its scarcity, the object of my desire became paramount in my brain crowding out everything else, including good sense. The authors liken this reduction in bandwidth to a virus which fundamentally overtakes the brain.
Shafir and Mullainathan describe a scenario as illustration: A dieter is sitting at a conference table facing colleagues and a plate of cookies. He plays a mental game with himself
making the case for and against indulging in the tasty treats.
This exhausting tit for tat process strains his brain and diverts his attention from
the task at hand, which is listening to what’s going on at the meeting of course. Hard to remember what the boss told you
when you are obsessed with the donuts.
Any form of denial requires restraint, of course, and
I am not suggesting that when you stop smoking you will not still crave a cigarette. But the act of quitting smoking is fairly straightforward. You simply do not reach for the pack.
This is very different from dieting. You can’t simply “quit” food. You must eat to survive.
And as Shakespeare said, “ay, there lies the rub.” With dieting you must constantly make decisions: How small a portion should I eat; how many calories are involved; how long must I work out to burn the “bad” calories I am ingesting? Exercising ever waning amounts of willpower is difficult enough without then adding this mental exercise of decision making to the pot.
But what about a solution?
What Sendhil and Mullainathan’s work suggests is the value of KISS or “Keep It Simple Stupid.”
Make one decision. “I will not eat sweets, Or I will not go for seconds. Or I
will eat the same but also run five miles.”
Which is exactly what happens to successful non smokers. They make just one decision: I won’t smoke.
Reducing the complexity of the task at hand is what is necessary for success say the authors. And this philosophy might explain the popularity of the low carbohydrate Atkins diet.
Like refusing to pick up another cigarette, all you have to do with Atkins is follow one simple directive: Don’t eat the white stuff.
That is a whole lot easier than counting calories, measuring proportions and making sensible food choices all the while in the throes of a cookie craving crisis.
There is no thinking there. The result: Increased “bandwidth” to use for self control and other tasks.
These findings have a broader application as well. Scarcity, whether it be dietary restrictions, too little income, not enough friends, changes behavior by focusing us on our obsession rather than on a solution to our problem. Focus can be beneficial in some ways, but prove hugely distracting in others.
The authors don’t contend that their approach is a magic bullet for obesity, poverty or loneliness, just that
it might be part of the solution.